Super Rugby is at an inflection point

Tahriffic Roar Rookie

By Tahriffic, Tahriffic is a Roar Rookie

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    The Crusaders win Super Rugby again. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

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    The indecision on whether to maintain the current structure or grow the game further is suffocating Super Rugby followers.

    A hallmark of sport is its ability to bring people together. Super Rugby’s backbone of success has been in its international flavour equally from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, emerging players from the Pacific Islands and more recently Japan and Argentina.

    It’s been refreshing reading everyone’s thoughts on the direction of Super Rugby this week and I think we can all agree on something, the current model is way too complicated. Put it this way, if you can’t explain how your competition works in less than three sentences; you’ve got yourself a problem.

    At the time of writing I am sure the powers to be are finalising an outcome on the competitions direction.

    Fundamentally, a trade off exists between competition quality versus the long-term growth of the game, domestically and abroad. The current model is way too complicated, keeping it simple works.

    The answer [cue Old El Passo meme], ‘why don’t we have both’?

    This is my idea, this is how it works – the benefits and risks in the short term.

    A Super Rugby competition exists with the already established teams plus six extra teams located throughout the Americas and Asia-Pacific. A promotion and relegation systems exists between the top 12 and bottom 12, where the bottom/top three teams of each league are promoted and relegated each year.

    A finals system takes place in the top division where the top four teams progress to a final series and an eventual champion is declared.

    Newly established franchises are based in new regions that include North America (two franchises from the USA, one from Canada), a second Argentinian team, and Asia (Hong Kong and Singapore, alternatively a second Japanese franchise in Kyoto).

    While many may perceive this as naïve, there are benefits to persevere with such a strategy. There would be question marks surrounding quality, travel, scheduling and the bottom line.

    Rugby is becoming a more popular sport in these countries, and with the introduction of sevens in the Olympics, the game’s profile has significantly increased.

    The USA is the largest sports market in the world. One thing Americans do really well is that they are sports-mad and fervent supporters of their teams in good and bad times.

    Teams in say Palo Alto, Denver and Vancouver would capture interest in the local towns with corporate sponsors willing to get their names on a jersey. Even if you only captured 10 per cent of the public’s imagination, you could have security in in the game’s longevity.

    America is the largest economy in the world and would attract a great deal of sponsorships to get the brand into time zones all over the world.

    The same could be said also for franchises based in Hong Kong and Singapore. These are truly global cities with a large expatriate base; franchises would get some traction as there aren’t any other sports available.

    If you were a global company (i.e. Banking/Healthcare/Telecommunications) you would gain exposure all throughout a South East Asian time zone which would raise your profile significantly (China is just next door too).

    New teams, more games leads to more viewers and audiences where there is an appetite for sport. There would be an incentive to play for these franchises as well as you pay very little (anything at all) in tax. The highest tax bracket in Hong Kong and Singapore rests only at 15 per cent, that and you’re more than likely to be paid in US dollars – you would attract talent and people would want to play for you.

    The risks involved is largely a significant drop in quality. This will be overcome in years while squads take time to develop. Support for the game in Canada and America is low compared to other major sports such as hockey and NFL but at least you would endeavour to gain some interest.

    Even if the second tier competition was bad, at least it is still worth watching both teams throwing around a footy and having a close game; better that than seeing a team being blown off the park by 50 points every week.

    There is a clear distinction in the competition as it stands now, every New Zealand team is outstanding, two South African and Australian teams are competitive, the rest are lagging behind.

    Fulfilling this would also require that all southern hemisphere unions acted as a cartel. A law would have to be introduced where you weren’t allowed to play for your country unless you were playing in Super Rugby (or the NRC, ITM Cup, Currie Cup and Top League).

    We have the luxury of the best emerging talent in the world. New Zealand has been a consistent production line of quality players, Western Sydney is a hot bed of talent where kids are being churned and pillaged by the NRL/AFL, players hailing from Tonga, Fiji and Samoa have long been lost to Europe, and there are hundreds of South Africans and Australians plying their trade in second tier competitions all over Italy and France.

    These players could fill a void in new franchises, while it would also give an opportunity for players in the Americas to blood new talent in order to raise the standard of the game domestically and increase their competitiveness internationally.

    In the proposed model you could incorporate teams from each existing conference to play each other at least once a year.

    The shortening of the season would flow nicely into the global calendar from 2020 and would provide players with ample time to rest.

    Personally, it has been disappointing to hear that Australian rugby fans are happy to see one of their teams let go, while the competitiveness is diluted. To me it seems short sighted to let 20 per cent of your emerging talent go to either overseas clubs or stuck on the reserves bench with zero game time. Perth, Canberra and Melbourne do have valid local competitions in place with a cult following and vocal support base.

    Australian Super Rugby captains

    Cutting a South African team would also be a sad sight. The initial endeavour of the Southern Kings was to emancipate people who felt hamstrung by their socioeconomic status.

    It’s not my place to champion and discuss politics or social issues. Regardless if it were in Australia or South Africa, it would be a shame and a disappointment to see a franchise cut a drift and serve as a slap in the face to their loyal supporters.

    This is really a divergent way of thinking and there are a lot of moving parts. But hey who wouldn’t say no to amalgamating all the best players from around the world and spicing up the game internationally?

    What makes rugby such a niche sport is that it does embrace its amateur (tribal) roots where players from a certain province can express themselves in an interpretation of how they play the game.

    To me rugby is the ultimate team sport where you can be the best player on the field and not even touch the ball.

    The success of any competition is inherit on its simplicity. People are endeared to a representation of their team trying their best on their behalf.

    Sloppy rugby in the meantime would have to do, but at least it’s worthwhile watching a bunch of boofheads picking up the ball and running with it.

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    The Crowd Says (37)

    • Roar Guru

      March 18th 2017 @ 7:36am
      Harry Jones said | March 18th 2017 @ 7:36am | ! Report

      Hear, hear!

    • Columnist

      March 18th 2017 @ 8:04am
      Geoff Parkes said | March 18th 2017 @ 8:04am | ! Report

      Thanks Alex. I’ve got no doubt that something like your model has been a long term objective (although you’d need to substitute one of those teams for a PI team)

      However the issue now is whether SANZAAR blink and bow to pressure to go back into their shell.

      The current 18 teams was always a pathway to something bigger, but it put them into no-mans land, neither small, concentrated and good quality, nor big enough to split into an A and B division. They gambled on being able to bluff their way through for a couple of years, but this hasn’t proven to be the case and so we have the today’s situation where now, they are making reactive decisions under pressure – which seldom results in good outcomes.

    • Roar Guru

      March 18th 2017 @ 8:24am
      Nobrain said | March 18th 2017 @ 8:24am | ! Report

      Good staff Alex. I feel the same. Expand, contraction will lead to a futher contraction. You must attack the beast and hope for the best. Fewer people in one place could be more in another.

      • Roar Guru

        March 18th 2017 @ 8:30am
        Harry Jones said | March 18th 2017 @ 8:30am | ! Report

        Yes. Must grow. Need revenue. Need reach. Need to start raiding the NH.

    • March 18th 2017 @ 8:39am
      Rob9 said | March 18th 2017 @ 8:39am | ! Report

      The model proposed sounds like it will still consist of many of the flawed elements we have currently that have been a contributing factor in driving the game to the wall. There’s also a lot of assumptions. Eg. American’s are mad supporters of their teams in good and bad times: Sure- for franchises that have existed for many years, they’re as good as embedded in the city culture and playing sports that are engrained in their national identity. Can we really expect this loyalty for new rugby clubs playing in some sort of global league? And unlocking those mouthwatering sponsorship $ you talk of really hinges on people turning up and/or on their TV boxes. This definitely is not a fore-drawn conclusion.

      One of the many lessons that the evolution of this Frankenstein-like beast we call Super Rugby should have taught us is the importance of growing organically. My own thinking on what the next move should be continues to evolve as the situation continues to shift. I’m now of the opinion it’s time to put a bomb under it!

      Within the 5 markets that are involved:
      NZ elevate the 14 team Mitre 10 Cup to their 2nd tier.
      SA elevate the 14 team Currie Cup to their 2nd tier.
      Australia develops a 10 team national league (not NRC teams) as our 2nd tier.
      Japan becomes involved in its existing domestic structure (the Top League) and focuses on developing its popularity and playing standards.
      Argentina focuses on bringing its Top 14 into professionalism or recreate a smaller national league.

      These are leagues built for their local landscape with only their own Union’s interests in mind (another lesson from Super Rugby). They each play a domestic season of around 15 weeks (including all finals).

      Obviously the money required to support such a model becomes an issue and I won’t pretend that there’s every chance it would be a case of short term pain for long term gain. Better than watching what we have slowly wither and die! But there’s 3 reasons/opportunities why I believe the difference in revenue (between what we currently have vs this new model) won’t be an enormous chasm from the get go.

      Firstly, you would hope such a model with it’s broader domestic base would do a better job of completely tapping into the respective fan bases. Speaking as an Australian, it’s abundantly clear that Super Rugby really only scratches the surface in this regard. 10 teams, playing only against each other where the local fans are has a far better chance of achieving this.

      Secondly, there is more content to be sold. This includes selling it within the local market, within the other partners markets and in the Northern Hemisphere who would no doubt develop a taste for it.

      Finally (and this is the big one), following the inbound tests and the Rugby Championship, NZ and SA’s 14 teams, Australia’s 10 teams and the champions from the Japanese and Argentinian leagues come together to create 8 pools of 5 teams to play a Champions League type tournament over an 8 or 9 week window. Use this knockout style tournament as the ‘crossing-boarder’ competition to help give everyone’s kitty a bit of a kick along with an extra top up of broadcast revenue. This should go a long way towards closing the gap of what everyone currently gets now vs selling just their own domestic leagues.

      I’m all for exploring markets like the US and Canada but let them develop and establish their own leagues organically. Once they’ve achieved this and it’s caught on, then look at revising the cross-boarder tournament to include them, while the core of everyone’s season (their domestic leagues) are able to carry on and remain unaffected by external movement.

    • Roar Guru

      March 18th 2017 @ 9:35am
      PeterK said | March 18th 2017 @ 9:35am | ! Report

      I agree contraction will lead to further contraction and pretty soon back to 12 teams.

      By then even more of the best players will be in europe, because the broadcast deal will drop by a lot.

      So if people are resigned to local comps being of substandrad and the majority of the national team being european based as it is in soccer then this is the way to go.

      The ONLY way to combat the euro dollars is to continue to expand into asia and americas.

      Simple solution right now is to keep 18 teams and switch to 3 conferences of 6.

      Play every team in your conference and 3 in the other 2 and switch to the other 3 the following year.

      Each conference winner gets a spot in the top 4 and thus at least 1 home qf. The rest of the 5 spots are wildcards. This way NZ can get all 5 teams in the finals and also the top 2 qf spots (aust and sa could be 3rd and 4th).
      Thus if they went to seeds nz could host 2 semi’s.

    • March 18th 2017 @ 9:48am
      Rugger said | March 18th 2017 @ 9:48am | ! Report

      Pulver has to go with current board.

      They are over-selling international element of Rugby have proven not to do anything without taking risks.

      What is ARU’s vision and what model does it want – Why the hell would ARU not articulate this?

      Super brand is in tatters thanks to ARU and SANZAAR because Pulver does not have balls to tell JV what we want and fight for it.

      If we contract to 4 teams we will be relegated to boutique sports given volume of content AFL, NRL and soccer have.

      We should have A-league model of 8-10 teams playing local league with top four to play off for Super Rugby which could include:

      Top Four teams from NZ, Japan, South Africa, Argentina and teams from Pacific.

      It will provide local derbies, content.

      Even if that means Wallabies program gets cut because there is not need to play 15 test each year.

      World Rugby wants tests front and centre and so does ARU due to vested interests but for game to grow we need clubs/franchises to thrive.

      Bottom up approach is needed not top-down but Pulver’s position has become untenable.

      • March 18th 2017 @ 10:09am
        hog said | March 18th 2017 @ 10:09am | ! Report

        And they have just signed of on a dedicated 5 month International calendar.

        Now what country does that suit ?.

        Which will leave the ARU flogging the crap out of the Wallabies to that ever dwindling fan base.

      • March 18th 2017 @ 10:51am
        In Brief said | March 18th 2017 @ 10:51am | ! Report

        The ARU released a strategic plan, they reinstated the NRC, but in place development pathways across the country and different age groups, have developed 7s and the women’s game into schools and have grown the game in WA and Vic. For grassroots rugby (not club rugby in Sydney) this administration has been the best Australia has ever had. We also just had a major win with the international calendar.

        • March 18th 2017 @ 11:53am
          Rugger said | March 18th 2017 @ 11:53am | ! Report

          They have but the super debacle has been worst EVER.

          so-called strategic plan call its game for all but if they kick one of Force, Brumbies and Rebels, does that make game for all or only Eastern Surburbs for Sydney and parts of Brisbane.

          Shute shield is not grassroots, its part of the fabric and for Papperworth to say its the be-all-and-end all is a joke.

          What 7s development you talking about – Where is the domestic league for men, womens?

          We are constantly getting smashed in 7s Rugby for mens and squad selection is worst I have seen : all the players have NEVER played that game and some will never have speed, size and ex-factor.

          Rugby is where it is because if administration being in-ept. Pulver has done some things right with pathways programs but what about strategy for West Sydney, Logan in QLD where gold-mine of talent exists and is feasted on by NRL teams.

          No wonder all super Rugby teams lack ex-factor because of so-called pathways are giving average players who lack ex-factor.

          #sack Pulver over Super Debacle.

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